"It was a dark and stormy night."
Much has been written about that opening line to a novel. It's usually used as an example of bad literature or "purple prose." It was penned by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his mid-1800's book "Paul Clifford." Such diverse literary interests as Snoopy and the San Jose State University English Department have had a heyday with that sentence. The latter holding an annual contest celebrating the best of the worst opening lines in several categories I sent an entry to the "Western Novel" division one time: "Sidney slid the big .44 out of its holster; it had been his uncle's gun; then slid it back in again." Didn't win.
"Purple" or goofy as that opening line may seem, we are constantly seeing references to darkness. Most recently, the cruise that was without power plunging interior cabins into total darkness for days on end. At a recent football game, the stadium went completely dark for a short time before auxiliary generators kicked in. Ever have your computer screen or TV go completely dark? I rolled over the other night and there were no numbers on my electric clock (fortunately it was a Saturday) then the next time I looked, there were four eights lit. I let out a snore of relief.
This time of year darkness is pervasive. Many of us go to work in the dark and it's dark when we leave for home. That culminates in the longest night of the year just before Christmas. Aside from the uplift some of us experience during the holidays, most of us see these as dark days indeed; first daylight-wise and sometime emotions-wise. But after that one long night in mid-December, we gain a few minutes of light every day. YEA! And six months later, like clockwork, we enjoy the longest day of the year and can be out puttering or putting at 9 p.m. Most of see that as glorious.
How much different it must have been even a few generations ago. I knew one set of great-grandparents who must have been born around 1875. I'll bet those were dark days before electricity got to the rural areas. As an aside: there was still a coal cook stove, a crank telephone, and a hand pump in the kitchen sink in the 1950's. And further aside: one day while visiting, on the kitchen table, I saw what looked like a white milk glass lid to something complete with a loop handle. I asked about it and it turns out it was a shield that was hung from the ceiling over a kerosene or oil lamp to protect the ceiling from soot. Great-grandma Julia had to clean it up once in a while.
Contrast that with the lighting options of today; bright lights that illuminate streets and parking lots, lights in every nook and cranny of our homes, lights that help plants grow or give us a taste of sunshine all year long, lights that turn on and off automatically. All this illumination technology certainly brightens things up in every way.
But still, there are seasons of the psyche and soul that can be dark no matter how well lit the environment is. I don't think I know anyone who doesn't have these down times. The question is: how do we tell if it's "normal" sadness or depression or something more serious? There are a few telltale signs:
Do you feel "down" all day, more days then not?
Have sleep or eating patterns changed?
Have you lost interest in people you like to be connected to?
Are there things you "used to" enjoy that you've lost interest in?
Are the people who know you well asking: "Are you OK?" a lot?
Has irritability set in?
Do you have trouble getting started on projects or staying concentrated on them?
Do you feel down on yourself; worthless, guilty, or, most obviously, suicidal?
With these official criteria there is even a special category if this is seasonal. Casually, this might be called "winter blues" or even "cabin fever." But if it is strong, pervasive and debilitating, it's time to talk to someone familiar with the issues and the treatments that can help. It is important to note that specific emotional stressors can certainly bring on these same feelings; grief, losing a job, a failed relationship. Sometimes sadness and depression are perfectly reasonable responses to those issues and if the holidays bring them into your day-to-day consciousness who wouldn't feel down?
The good news is, there is help available for all these issues! Counselors can't turn night into day. But they can provide some helpful tools; a candle, a flashlight, a glimmer, to light the path back to some level of comfort and happiness.
To explain a little more about how all this works, Family Services and First United Methodist Church are sponsoring another free workshop entitled: "So you want to learn about the holiday blues." This will be conducted Family Services staff member Larry Koppelman, LCSW, Monday, December 13, from 6-7 p.m. in a First United Methodist Church parlor. These workshops shed a little light onto a variety of topics. We at Family Services firmly believe it is better to light a single candle with caring, compassionate, confidential counseling than to curse whatever darkness you may be experiencing!
Gary Lester, M.S., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.